Reading and rereading Shaw's Misalliance, helping the director and the designers in their initial preparations for rehearsals of the play at People's Light & Theatre, I kept coming back to Shaw's later play, Heartbreak House.
The plays couldn't be more different. Misalliance is set in the brilliant daylight of a country house in summer, Heartbreak House in a country house in September as the sun is setting. This seasonal and temporal difference is reflected in the plays' respective tones. Heartbreak House was written during the dark years of despair during the first World War, as Shaw, an outcast in his own adopted country, looked on at a nation and a continent blindly destroying itself, enslaved to false values, and clinging suicidally to a bankrupt political and economic system. The eponymous house in the play, shaped like a ship, is a metaphor for the ship of state, foundering on the rocks while the captain is drunk in his cabin and the steersman is asleep at the tiller. The denizens of Heartbreak House toy with one another's affections in cynical games of flirtation and sex, break one another's hearts, and wallow in the bankruptcy of their values. And, at the end of the play, as the moonlit night is punctuated by bombs dropping from the sky from dirigibles, they all listen to the sounds of the explosions ("It's like Beethoven") and hope that the dirigibles will come again the next night.
This clearly is not what is going on in Misalliance, where the only thing that drops out the sky is adventure. But, even so, I couldn't escape from the image of the house. Here, as in Heartbreak House, the house is a metaphor for the country and for the world. Grafted onto the Tarleton house in Hindhead is an iron-and-glass conservatory, the product of new technology, offering a window on the world, a vision of modernity and of the future. And, as in Heartbreak House, the household in Misalliance is home to the classes that hold power. The Tarletons are exemplary of the manufacturing classes--the new power base in the new Britain. The daughter, Hypatia, is successfully allying the family through marriage with the old power-base, the Aristocracy; the son, Johnny, has perfected the social graces of the ruling classes and has been accepted into the best gentleman's clubs.
I don't mean to suggest that, as in Heartbreak House, the occupants of the Tarleton household are doom-laden representatives of a dying ruling order seeking suicidal destruction while the ship of state founders on the rocks. But there are foreshadowings, like the distant sounds of propellers that precede the arrival of aerial warships. Lord Summerhays, the tired aristocrat who has returned from decades of government service managing the natives in the far reaches of the empire, realizes that England cannot govern itself at home with the same unscrupulous efficiency that it employs to govern its colonies, and that he can only sit and look on, from the window of his club on Pall Mall, as England drifts on aimlessly without being steered. Tarleton speculates that the history of imperialism (there are Roman ruins at Hindhead, not far beyond the view out of the conservatory window) is the history of the imperial overlords sinking into obsolescence, while the oppressed imperial underlings convert the energies of the governed into a new civilization. And "Gunner," the misguided working-class sentimentalist who has come to murder Tarleton, announces: "The writing is on the wall. Rome fell. Babylon fell. Hindhead's turn will come."
But despite these images of decline and doom, what struck me most when returning to this play, in preparation for my work as dramaturg, was its optimism. The characters are bursting with sexual energy and bursting with ideas (Tarleton too much so in both cases). And they are still in the grips of a Shavian confidence that anything can be accomplished if they only will it so: that the masses can be enlightened by free access to books; that business and industry can fuel the economy and the collective energies of society at large; and that the technology that brought us the telegraph and the airplane can accomplish anything in service of humanity.
The occupants of Heartbreak House can seem do nothing to change their world. But Shaw, before the first World War, still believed that the world could be changed. Andrew Undershaft, the millionaire munitions manufacturer in Major Barbara, uses an industrial research-and-development model to explain how our values and the world can be transformed:
What do we do here [in our factory] when we spend years of work and thought and thousands of pounds of solid cash on a new gun or an aerial battleship that turns out just a hairsbreadth wrong after all? Scrap it. Scrap it without wasting another hour or another pound on it. Well, you have made for yourself something that you call a morality or a religion or what not. It doesnt fit the facts. Well, scrap it. Scrap it and get one that does fit. That is what is wrong with the world at present. It scraps its obsolete steam engines and dynamos; but it wont scrap its old prejudices and its old morality and its old religions and its old political constitutions. Whats the result? In machinery it does very well; but in morals and religion and politics it is working at a loss that brings it nearer bankruptcy every year. Dont persist in that folly. If your old religion broke down yesterday. Get a newer and a better one for tomorrow.In Misalliance, Shaw doesn't offer a specific program for transforming the world. Nor do the occupants of the Tarleton household at Hindhead always seem capable of scrapping their old value systems and inventing new ones. But the promise of new things percolates beneath the surface in the play. The existing social structures can barely contain the energies of the people who live within them. And, by the middle of the play, the technology of the new world (along with two new and interesting people) literally bursts into the house through the conservatory window.
If the play never offers a program for the new order, and if, as Hypatia suggests, all that anyone ever does is "Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk," there is one level of activity that holds out the promise of liberation and vitality: sex. The action of the play ostensibly revolves around what Summerhays sarcastically call "the great question . . . the question which particular young man some young woman will mate with." Percival responds, to Hypatia's astonishment, "As if it mattered!," not because the identity of one's partner isn't important, but because questions of flirtation, courtship, and marriage settlements are mere technicalities compared to the sexual magic that Percival experiences with Hypatia in the woods not far beyond the windows of the conservatory.
In this way, Misalliance is vastly different from Granville Barker's play, The Madras House, the play that inspired Shaw to write Misalliance, which premiered in repertory with it at Charles Frohman's repertory venture at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1910. Like Misalliance, The Madras House is about sex and marriage. And like Heartbreak House, the title turns a house (in this case, an haute couture ladies' clothing manufacturer's "house") into a metaphor. Barker's play is a kaleidoscopic examination of marriage, sex, and the commodification and objectification of women (shown, literally and figuratively, through the fashion industry). By the end, as the play's principal couple try to renegotiate their troubled marriage, the husband and wife both express their contempt for what they call "that farmyard world of sex."
In Misalliance, Shaw intentionally plunges us into the farmyard. One character is nicknamed "Bunny," another is called "a beautiful animal," another a "beast," and they have to fight one another off "like a wildcat." Lina Szczepanowska, disgusted by this world she's literally dropped into, declares that it is a "rrrrrrabbit hutch." But this farmyard world is not condemned by Shaw, as it condemned by Barker and his characters. Indeed, it turns out to be the most vital thing about the Tarleton household. The characters all have to test their moral and social attitudes in their attempt to understand and to accommodate the sexual energies coursing through their bodies. And in dealing with their sexual energies, the characters can see, with new and astonishing clarity, the bankruptcy of the institutions in which they live. Neither we nor Hypatia condemn Tarleton for being an adulterer (not even Mrs. Tarleton does); but Hypatia does condemn him for expressing his sexual vitality freely while maintaining false and idealistic myths about the sanctity of his marriage and his family. (As Vivie Warren says to her prostitute-turned-capitalist mother at the end of Mrs Warren's Profession, "If I had been you, mother, I might have done as you did; but I should not have lived one life and believed in another"). By the end of the play, Joey Percival is freed by Hypatia from the "corset" of gentlemanly behavior that binds him, and hears "the churr of a fern owl" in Hypatia's magical garden. And Lina, who appears to transcend all traditional sexual roles and gender boundaries, takes off into the skies, with the weakling Bentley, now courageous, triumphantly in tow.
All this sounds delightfully schematic. And, if I were a literary critic, I would eagerly write it all this up into a scholarly article. But I'm not a literary critic. I am a theatre historian, director, and teacher; and so I know that a play's vitality lies, not in what it means (or even in what it can be made to mean, in performance), but in the energies that are unleashed by actors when they start doing their work, in rehearsal and in performance. As I write these personal notes, the actors have only recently begun to do their collective work, with the director, in the rehearsal hall: to discover the play's vitality for themselves, and to give this vitality form through their own emotions and bodies. And what they are discovering is what I can only discern by inference from my imaginative readings of the play: that, unlike the characters in Heartbreak House, the characters in Misalliance are still very much filled to the brim with a sexual and an intellectual vitality, a vitality that far surpasses the world-weariness of the characters in the later play. The characters in Misalliance may fail to transform their society, to change the nature of their literal and figurative "house," or to successfully renegotiate the parent/child relationship. But the more the young people in the play learn to express and to act upon their vitality--and the more the actors discover their own vitality in their roles--the more their world and ours will never be the same.